A Shakespearean Mystery

The devastating printer’s error in Shakespeare’s "Sonnet 146" has posed an enigma for almost four hundred years. What could the original text have been? There is, of course, no way to know for certain, but by examining clues set in the rest of the poem, some reasonable inferences can be drawn. One logical assumption is that the intended second line could have been "Vexed by these rebel powers that thee array," and this conjecture is supported by other metaphors and images in the poem that suggest that the soul’s supremacy over the body is being undermined.

In the very first line of the poem, the soul is described as "the centre of my sinful earth". Its placement in the center indicates its importance; it is the focal point of all the other traits of the "sinful earth". The soul’s power and subsequent central placement is emphasized if the term "sinful earth" is taken to mean the physical human body. The soul is the lifeblood of human existence; without a soul, the individual is simply an empty shell, devoid of being. Thus, the soul can be construed as the ruler of the human body because without the soul, the body cannot exist.

However, the third line questions the true authority of the soul. By asking why the soul "pine[s] within" (3), the narrator gives the reader the impression that the soul is unable to exercise its power, and therefore is oppressed, or "vexed", by what it is meant to rule. The reason for this oppression is given in the fourth line, wherein the soul is asked why it is "painting [its] outward walls so costly gay". In other words, why bother to adorn and glorify the physical body, as it is not meant to last?

The impression of transience is continued with the reference to the "fading mansion" (6). The adjective "fading" mirrors the slow dying of the body, while "mansion" begins a new metaphor – comparing the body to a magnificent dwelling that unfortunately will not last long. Again, the authority of the soul is undermined: what is the point of being the central focus if the surroundings are so temporary?

The seventh and eighth lines carry a rather more graphic and morbid image of the the soul’s "charge" (8) being consumed by worms. By this colorful description, the reader can infer that the physical body is once again is being described in the metaphor. Worms are commonly associated with corpses, especially depicted as feeding on the remains. Also, by the use of the word "charge", the soul’s dominion over the body is once again established. However, since the "charge" is contrarily insisting on decaying, not much is left for the soul to rule over, thereby "vexing" it once again.

Still, all hope is not lost. Yet another metaphor is employed when the soul is admonished to "live upon [its] servant’s loss" (9). By choosing the noun "servant", the narrator is again emphasizing that the soul ultimately holds control over the body. The soul is advised to regain supremacy over its subject through feeding on the "loss" of the physical body and thereby gaining spiritual strength. This point is expounded again in the line, "Within be fed, without be rich no more" (12). Instead of wasting its energies on the corporeal body, the soul should concentrate within, feeding on its own energies and concentrating on spirituality rather than materialism.

Although there are many other possibilities as to what Shakespeare truly intended the enigmatic line to be, "Vexed by these rebel powers that thee array" seems one of the most logical. The phrase "vexed by" is in keeping with the poem’s images of superiority undermined by natural circumstances and enhances the tone of the sonnet itself. Even though the true line will never be confirmed, evidence in the poem certainly supports this particular phrase.